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These Projects Are Using Art To Fight The Prison Industrial Complex

Beyond just raising awareness, artistic projects can work for impact as well.

These Projects Are Using Art To Fight The Prison Industrial Complex
With all of these projects, it should also be said that there is both a long arc towards justice and [reasonable] timeline for change.” (Living Memorial, Reparations Rally, Feb. 14, 2015.) [Photo: Sarah-Ji]

In late June, Bay Area-based Five Keys Charter Schools launched the Self Determination Project, a program that turns buses into mobile classrooms to reach kids who might otherwise not get plugged into traditional schools for lack of transportation, a feeling that they don’t fit in, or because they’re afraid to cross blocks that act like borders in neighborhood gang territory.

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To be a success, however, the mobile learning hubs needed to be not just transportable but also inspirational inside, so the kids want to be there. To that end, the prototype’s interior is sleek and contemporary, equipped with skylights, a boxy lounge, and plenty of clean, well-lit space for kids to access laptops, peruse an onboard library, and learn from a cast of traveling teachers.

The project’s originator, designer Deanna Van Buren, is the founder of FOURM, a studio that looks at infrastructure as a way to create “restorative justice”—a practice for rebuilding lives in ways that improve relationships with the people and communities they’ve impacted. Her initial concept, originally funded in 2015 through an $80,000 Artists as Activists Fellowship from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, has since attracted additional investment from social entrepreneurship funders like Echoing Green and Google.

In the philanthropy world, this is an example of arts and culture funding that does more than just raise awareness—it’s impact driven. Since 2015, the Rauschenberg Foundation has been awarding these kinds of two-year grants, offering up to $100,000 for artists or art collectives willing to get less abstract about their purpose. The idea is that creativity should somehow make real social change.

“We are invested in infusing the body of potential solutions for an issue with creative thinking, new analyses, compelling storytelling, and inspiring voices.” (“We Are Human Beings”/ Familias Separadas Project). [Photo: Steve Weinek]
Not that it has to happen all at once. “With all of these projects, it should also be said that there is both a long arc towards justice and [reasonable] timeline for change,” says Risë Wilson, the foundation’s director of philanthropy, in an email. “We don’t expect a single artist to topple enormous challenges in the span of two years. Instead, we are invested in infusing the body of potential solutions for an issue with creative thinking, new analyses, compelling storytelling, and inspiring voices.”

In July, the group announced its 2017 fellowship recipients, nine new projects will split $700,000 total. To maximize the impact even more, all are geared toward the central theme of alleviating the mass incarceration epidemic. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated, a 500% increase over the last three decades that’s disproportionately African American and Hispanic. The judicial and correctional system as it currently works (or, rather, doesn’t) has become a quick, blunt, and often unfair tool that can destroy families and communities. That doesn’t even account for the lack of access to meaningful rehabilitation and release transition programs.

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The Rauschenberg Foundation, which has and $85 million endowment, hopes its next set of fellows will create multimedia and performance work that spurs more organizing, policies, and practices to break that cycle. The funder honors the ideals of mixed-media artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose work often tackled societal issues around health, homelessness, race and the environment. He made the first Earth Day poster with proceeds benefiting an eco-action group in 1970. Today, the group works with the Sundance Institute on films about climate change, backs artists in places where free expression is sorely needed (not just New York and California), and hosts a residency program for its fellows in Florida.

“[They’re] working to help their community imagine in very concrete, practical terms what alternative policing practices.” [Photo: Ed Hille]
The 2017 fellowship class was selected from a pool of 275 applicants. It’s a diverse crew in terms of both approach and geographical location with projects ranging from “Unprisoned,” a New Orleans public radio show whose second season will investigate how Louisiana became the country’s incarceration capital, to the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, a collective that will create public memorials to the families and survivors of police brutality in that city, using artwork, historical archives and oral histories to show a connection between such dehumanizing practices and things like excessive sentencing in Illinois.

The foundation has also greenlit a Utah-based filmmaker to do a documentary on incarcerated women fighting for their right to bear children, and a Philadelphia-based organizer to launch a pop-up exhibition and workshop involving former and currently incarcerated artists to humanize inmates and build more grassroots support for them in places where it may not exist. Another effort in Pennsylvania does something similar for immigrant families hurt by detention and deportation, and the broader Latino community, many of whom suffer abuse and are unfairly targeted. In Durham, North Carolina, an arts and community group called SpiritHouse is organizing public performance series and workshops to reimagine what a “harm free” criminal justice and public safety system might look like.

“[They’re] working to help their community imagine in very concrete, practical terms what alternative policing practices could look like in their specific local context,” Wilson adds about the SpiritHouse effort. “That might sound full on ludicrous but how do we get to alternative ways of being if we don’t have the capacity to step out of the known universe and envision something new. This is the precise role artists can play that other professions may struggle to do.”

Find out more about all the projects here.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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